Was Noah Righteous?
My favorite animal is the giraffe. Though my Patronus was harder to figure out, the question of what my favorite animal is is easy to answer. This is different for my religious school students- when asked, one fourth grader this past week had to name her favorite land, sea, flying, barnyard, and mythical animals because she couldn’t narrow it down any further. I like giraffes for a lot of reasons. They are beautiful and majestic. They move elegantly and rarely intend to hurt other animals, even when competing over dominance in a herd. I like that the females stick together and collectively raise their young. I like that they’re not territorial except when it comes to the safety of the herd. I like that they have a giraffe version of hugging, called necking. I also like how silly their tongues are and how young giraffes are weighed in zoos (look it up- it’s worth it). I’m highly concerned about their status on the endangered species list, but as of now, it’s not an issue I’m planning on dedicating my life to.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Ilana, we’re in services trying to have a spiritual moment together. Why are you talking about your favorite animal?” Good question! This week’s parsha is Noach, the story of Noah’s ark. In it, G-d decides the human race is consumed by violence and corruption and instructs Noah, the only righteous man, to build an ark. He is then to gather his wife, his sons, and their wives and two of each animal for the most fun family vacation ever. Very obediently, Noah does what G-d commands. Noah, his unnamed wife, his sons, Shem, Cham, and Japheth, and their unnamed wives spend 40 wild days on the ark surrounded by dogs and bears and lizards and peacocks and, yes, giraffes.
Noah stuck up for the animals, saving literally thousands on an ark that must have been gigantic and chaotic. This was not an easy task. From building the ark to returning to dry land, Noah had a lot of work to do. On top of it, the only world he ever knew was destroyed and all he got in return was a promise, a rainbow, and a lot of animal poop. However, during the process, Noah did not stick up for his fellow man. He did not argue when G-d said he was the only righteous person. He did not try to share the praise. He did not even stop to tell G-d that his wife and his son’s wives had names. Instead, he chose to take shelter in the ark and in G-d’s praise. While the world and countless lives were destroyed around him, Noah was safe in the ark, petting whichever animal was his favorite.
What’s interesting about Noah as a protagonist is this obedience. Even though he does not believe in G-d as the one G-d, Adonai, Noah is obedient. That’s right, Noah is not a Jew. No one is yet. This parsha also includes the story of the Tower of Babel which ends in the splitting of the world’s population into 70 nations. And at the very end, after a lot of begetting, if you know what I mean ;), we meet Avram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah) who will become the first Jews. Though there are other stories featuring destructive obedience in the Torah, G-d’s instructions are never quite this vague and never quite this terrible.
But, it does seem that G-d put a loophole in G-d’s instructions. G-d commands, “And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you” (Genesis 6:19). Though humans live, Noah was commanded to take more than the allotted amount into the ark. I like to think that this was intentionally vague, that G-d wanted Noah to challenge G-d and say, “I am not the only righteous person. People are aggravating and rude and disrespectful and ignorant and hateful and violent and passionate and complex and if you give them a chance, they can be righteous, too. Give them a chance.” But, Noah did not talk back. G-d knew what humans are capable of because just a few chapters ago, G-d created humans, “and found [them] very good” (Genesis 1:31). G-d commanded Noah to bring his family maybe because G-d saw the potential that humans have to be righteous.
Abraham and most of the following biblical characters will not blindly follow G-d the way Noah does. They will question and argue, and, though this may be a stereotype in the way people think of Jews today, it is essential to the Jewish faith that we wrestle with G-d. Noah did not have what it takes to be a Jew because Noah just wanted to follow. He knew how to care for animals, but he did not know how to care for his fellow human. Maybe Noah doesn’t seem that righteous after all. If he had been truly righteous, he could have gathered a team of people, once corrupted but now righteous as well, and together they could have saved the animals Noah forgot- like the unicorns.
Really, I like giraffes for a lot of the same reasons I like people. I like people who don’t pick fights, who are kind of awkward, like me, but try to be graceful anyway, who love hugs, and who work together to problem solve. I really like giraffes, but I will never like them as much as I like people. What Noah missed was all the potential people can have if you let them. I can change the world with other people. I can learn from and have true, symbiotic relationships with them. I recognize that people want to do good though they often steer in the wrong direction. G-d promised not to cause a catastrophe like this again. I promise to prevent catastrophes like this by giving every single person a chance at being righteous.
At the beginning of any book, the themes of the plot and the characters’ motives are still fuzzy. We’re still at the beginning of the Torah; it doesn’t seem like we’ve found any morals yet, and I’m not really sure what to think of this G-d character. But, I’ll keep reading in hopes that we can find what it truly means to be righteous.
Ilana Symons’ dvar Torah: Parshat Noach on 10.20.2017